Should We Honor Good Actions That Stem from Bad Reasons? April 15, 2009

Should We Honor Good Actions That Stem from Bad Reasons?

This guest post is by Jesse Galef, who works for the American Humanist Association. He usually blogs at Rant & Reason.

I want to express how grateful I am to be allowed to contribute here. Not only do I enjoy reading the site, but Friendly Atheist has a great community of commenters.

In fact, reader Primenumbers raised an interesting point in comments for my earlier post:

Good works are not good works if you’re doing them for a bad reason. Then they’re just works, or even bad works, depending. For good works to be truly good, the motivations must be good too.

How should we act when a person does good deeds for what we consider bad reasons?

I’ve written about this before, but I’m reminded of a charming short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer:

A poor man asks to borrow a pair of silver spoons from the town miser. The miser grudgingly agrees, and the next morning the poor man returns the spoons with one of his own silver teaspoons, claiming that the spoons gave birth! The miser is delighted, so when the poor man then asks to borrow the set of very expensive silver candlesticks, he is more than willing. The poor man sells the candlesticks, sadly telling the miser that they passed away in the night. Furious, the miser hauls him before the rabbi, who says with a grin: “If spoons can give birth, candlesticks can die.”

If we say nothing against faulty reasoning when we like the outcome, we lose some standing to protest when the same faulty reasoning brings an unfavorable outcome.

Now, I don’t believe anyone is ever purely motivated by a desire to please God. They might be to some degree, but there’s usually other reasons for people to act. When people cite religion as their motivation, it obscures the underlying reasons — and it’s best to get those reasons out in the open.

We shouldn’t smile and stay silent when a man proclaims that he’s fighting poverty because God wants him to. It keeps obscured the secular reasons we should care for the poor. The more strongly people see religion tied to morality on issues like poverty or the environment, the more difficult it will be to separate the two when it comes to homosexuality or women’s rights.

I think we should praise the work while putting forth our secular motivation for appreciating it. When a person says that he’s helping the poor because he believes it to be God’s will, we can respond with “Thank you for helping people in need, I’m sure they appreciate it.” It reinforces the notion that there are secular reasons to do charitable works — to simply help others for the sake of it!

Have any of you been in this situation?

What do you think we should do when friends or neighbors cite religion as their motivation to do good works?

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • What do you think we should do when friends or neighbors cite religion as their motivation to do good works?

    “That’s all well and good, but what’s wrong with doing good works just because they’re the right thing to do? “

  • Julia

    “If we say nothing against faulty reasoning when we like the outcome, we lose some standing to protest when the same faulty reasoning brings an unfavorable outcome.”
    <– YES. This should be bolded and underlined!

  • K

    The point is moot. I’ve yet to meet a christian who does good works. They talk about it more than anyone but the more caught in the web of crazy they are, the less they do for anyone else. At best, the typical christian talks about praying for people (odds are, it’s more talk than even praying) but prayer, of course merely serves to stroke the ego of the one who is praying. It serves no real purpose whatsoever.
    And don’t get cocky, I don’t see a lot of Atheists volunteering and giving unselfishly either. The reality is, people are too busy with their own lives to drop everything and give to those who aren’t putting forth every effort. There’s nothing wrong with survival of the fittest, but what’s wrong is talking about how wonderful you are when all your, “good works,” are just another lie you tell yourself. Look around. Does it look like anyone is taking a special interest in doing good for others? Of course not.

  • Dallas

    Buffy said: “That’s all well and good, but what’s wrong with doing good works just because they’re the right thing to do? “

    I completely agree. I get so tired of hearing the non-religious demonized as amoral because we aren’t superstitious. I have worked as an AIDS volunteer, assisted homeless teenage runaways, contributed to numerous charities, donated more than a gallon of blood, and rescued unwanted animals. I did these things because I thought they were the right thing to do and because they made me feel better about myself. God had nothing to do with any of it.

  • Some people do do good works because God told them to do it. In this case it will probably be an underlying human empathy brought to the fore by some passage in their chosen fairytale book so looking for a secular reason that would encourage others would not work in that scenario.

    I was interested in the story and I happen to think it is immoral. Placing the story in today’s world means if we don’t criticise people for doing good works for religion then we can’t criticise the evil people do because of it either. Theft is theft, murder is murder.

    Also, would it be moral to criticise someone giving blood, especially if they had a rare blood type, and convince them their reasons are bad so that they stop giving blood?

    I think if people do good things for malevolent reasons then we should see things differently, e.g. a blood donor who thinks they have HIV and is trying to infect other people, but in fact has been misdiagnosed. They should not only not be praised for giving blood, they should be arrested.

    So I think they key point is that we should praise good works even if the reasoning is wrong, but not if the reasons are wrong.

  • Richard Wade

    I see plenty of altruism done for a myriad of motives. Analyzing and judging the motives of others is a risky thing to do, because people usually have their outwardly expressed motives as well as more private, inborn ones. For instance, much of the effort to restore storm victims to their homes after Katrina has been done by religious groups. Those people often talked about glorifying God or following Jesus when they were interviewed by outsiders, but I think that is more a way they focus their natural altruism. If they were not part of a church they would probably still be altruistic, compassionate people, but they might lack the group impetus that would bring it out, express it and organize it. Religious people who are not very altruistic by nature will either not be attracted to a church that does a lot of charity outreach, or they will simply not participate in those activities.

    I agree with Jessie that it is wise to support altruism done for whatever outward motive while also emphasizing the human-oriented reasons to do so, but not to the extent that we characterize someone’s expressed religious motives as flawed, shoddy, insincere or somehow unworthy. We should avoid posing ourselves as the Judge of Character, because we cannot know the full range of their motives, and because our criteria for deciding what is a “good” motive or a “bad” motive may be entirely subjective and not be defensible when challenged. Better that we use that energy to actually help solve problems.

    Real world examples of secular-motivated good deeds are much more valuable than mere arguments in favor of them.

  • Lauren H.

    Also, would it be moral to criticise someone giving blood, especially if they had a rare blood type, and convince them their reasons are bad so that they stop giving blood?

    I think the point here is not to convince people that their reasons for acting are flawed so that they stop acting, but rather to encourage discussions with people citing religious impetus for good deeds to explore why the act is a good one in a secular context.

    Using Keddaw’s example, if you’re engaged in conversation with someone who claims they donate their rare blood to better serve God, it would be valuable to put their good deed back into context with what the deed really does. In this case you would want to draw attention to how the deed improves the quality of human life (without the intervention of a god). If what Keddaw argues is true, that people doing good deeds simply to please God, then the secularist argument, that people can do good for goodness’ sake, fails. It seems the secularist perogative to assume that people are more complex than that (as even the most selfless seeming deeds serve the self), even if their rhetoric doesn’t always represent it.

  • What Richard Wade said.

    But as long as I’m babbling anyways….
    I don’t think we can not applaud good deeds without looking like jerks. We may have to finesse our language regarding the motivations, but we can’t run down the tangible actions (provided the actions aren’t in some way corrupted by the motives, eg. I get to evangelize you as a condition of feeding you).

    As a personal note: one of the factors that drove my final alienation from fundamentalism was the attitude that good deeds that weren’t done for Jesus (ie. by non-Christians) “weren’t really good”. I thought it was wrong then, and I think it just as wrong on the other side.

  • David D.G.

    Eamon Knight wrote:

    As a personal note: one of the factors that drove my final alienation from fundamentalism was the attitude that good deeds that weren’t done for Jesus (ie. by non-Christians) “weren’t really good”. I thought it was wrong then, and I think it just as wrong on the other side.

    I agree with this completely. We should still praise the doing of good works, even when they stem from motives we regard as irrelevant or irrational.

    This doesn’t mean that the proselytizing that often accompanies “Christian charity” should be ignored or condoned — but by all means let’s give proper credit where it’s due for the charity work itself. We would expect the same recognition from the religious.

    ~David D.G.

  • “The more strongly people see religion tied to morality on issues like poverty or the environment, the more difficult it will be to separate the two when it comes to homosexuality or women’s rights.”

    This touches on a pet peeve of mine. I find the frequent conflation of religious belief and ethical behavior terribly frustrating. I often feel as though our society assumes that I can’t possibly have any ethical standards of behavior, since god hasn’t handed me a set of rules to live by. Apparently I must be hedonistic, selfish, and possibly evil, because I’m non-theistic!

    Is it just me, or does this notion seem to suggest an awfully dim view of humanity?

  • schism

    Good works done for selfish reasons can still be good, in the broad sense.

    Take Governor Paterson. His pushing for gay marriage is almost certainly self-serving (considering his polling), but increased gay rights is a net positive nonetheless.

    I think the best place to draw the line is when the selfish reasons start to interfere with the works. If a religious organization is providing food and whatnot to starving people, with said actions later being used to “prove” the superiority of the religion, that’s still a good result because the people didn’t starve. If the starving people have to convert to receive said food, that’s absolutely not good.

    It’s a pretty fuzzy line, admittedly.

  • Sam H.

    I definitely agree with Jesse, and I’m a christian myself. Good deeds are good deeds regardless of the expressed reason, bad deeds often similarly so. In the case of the donor who intended to infect, by all means arrest them. However I’d say thank them too. They’ve donated a rare blood type, it’s a good thing! Plus, if they really meant to infect than thanking them for a good donation is the best justice.

    However I’d caution folks not to confuse Christian with Evangelist. There are plenty of us out here with enough reason and sense not to be judgmental of others based on expressed belief or lack thereof. I would never think an Atheist couldn’t be good because they weren’t doing it for religion, so please don’t think ill of me because I believe my motivation is spiritual.

    And by all means, compliment someone who does good in the name of religion, and denounce their bad deeds. You never lose the right to criticize an evil act. If they claim it’s for God and it’s evil, then either they’re wrong or it’s not a very good God.

  • Larry Huffman

    Hmmm…some of you need to find new christian acquiantences…I see christians doing good things very often…and often their expressed motives are serving god, or doing the good work..or some such. I do agree 100% with Jesse in that most of the time these kinds of things are motivated by humanism and compassion more than religion…and claiming the religious angle tends to be a ‘feathers in the cap’ sort of thing.

    But…I think there is the ability to seperate actions from motivations…because there has been a lot of good performed by chrisitans and christian organizations that…while being outwardly expressed as doing god’s work…it is doing good work nonetheless.

    Do we really want to look at the majority of americans today and tell them that the good they are doing is not to be considered simply because they are doing it through their churches?

    If you think this, then I think your motives also must be considered…you do not want something good done for the sake of getting it done…you want something good done, so long as it coincides with your view of the decline of religion. IF you are going to ignore or somehow belittle good work being done by the religious…even though that good does in fact help people who seriously need the help…then your motives are getting in the way just as much if not more than the religous people you are standing against.

    The arrogance to belittle the good work religious people do is on par with the arrogance on their part that we so despise.

  • I was recently confronted with a similar situation when a Christian coworker asked if I wanted to help out at his church’s “Service Sunday.” He forwarded me their flyer about the event and it said, “The goal of this day is simple: to share the love of Christ with others through service.” He knows I’m an atheist, so I wrote him back and said, “I am interested in helping, but my goal in attending will be different from the one mentioned in the flyer. My goal will be to share my love with others through service.” I did attend the service event, and was very happy to have the opportunity to help clean an elementary school in a very poor neighborhood. I did it just for the sake of helping. If my attendance also displayed to my coworker that I was willing to help others with no religious motivations behind it, then that’s a bonus.

  • This discussion raises an interesting question:

    What are the proper motives for good works?

  • River

    I think good works are good works and should be encouraged whatever the motivations. Presuming to know someone’s motivation is both arrogant and creeps into thought-crime territory, which is something I wish to stay well away from.

  • Jason Orlando Hawk

    Bravo Larry!

  • CatBallou

    It looks like most of the commenters are in agreement about this argument by Primenumbers.
    When I first read the statement, I assumed that “bad” meant “malevolent,” and no examples came to mind. But if “bad” actually means “a reason I find spurious,” I think this reasoning is flawed.
    It seems to be separating intent (to do good) from motivation (to be a good Christian?). If the intent is to do good and the outcome is good, focusing on motivation seems overly judgmental.

  • I’m enjoying the discussion here. I think what I was thinking of is when someone does something good, but for, say, selfish reasons, that person is not acting morally, but that does not mean that the outcome of the act is necessarily bad. The result of that act for, say, the person they’re helping could very well be good.

    In effect, I think we can divorce the morality of the act (why it was performed, what motivated the act) from the outcome of the act (was someone helped, was someone hurt).

    I think it’s more than purely “intent” on the reasoning behind the act though. One could do a good work because they just get a thrill from helping people out. Or you could do a good work to build up brownie points for a better position in heaven. You could befriend someone to be their friend, or you could befriend them knowing they lack Jesus in their hearts and wish to convert them.

    I like it when people do good things for selfless reasons, reasons that don’t directly benefit the doer other than the good feeling you get from helping others. I don’t think it’s as moral to do good things for selfish reasons. But it’s not a good / bad thing – there’s a whole continuum of shades of grey.

  • Stephen R

    I’m not sure…

    I think that most people’s ethics are ultimately driven by a desire for happiness.. That acting morally is desirable to the individual because being a good person is itself beneficial long-term. (With the exception of say, parents, whose actions are motivated by concern for their kids and less by their own personal happiness*).

    I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong for Christians to be motivated by their religion. We might feel that those who are primarily motivated by love for others are more noble, but there’s no reason why Christians can’t do both… They might love their neighbor and genuinely care AND not want to go to hell. That’s perfectly fine with me.

    *(This could be stretched into personal happiness by showing the fulfillment parents get out of raising children.. But I think it’s more other-regard than self-regard.)

    Here’s a youtube video related:

  • Curtis

    A lot of good things are done for partly selfish reasons.

    I started a business in a run down part of town. I helped clean up the neighborhood to help my business (selfish) and also to make the town better (good thing). The big reason for the business was greed but I was pleased that it was beneficial for the town and my neighbors appreciated the effort we made.

    The beauty of capitalism is that businesses make money by making people happy. Society benefits as you enrich yourself. Obviously, there are some despicable counter examples but it is a general rule.

  • Curtis:
    “The beauty of capitalism is that businesses make money by making people happy. Society benefits as you enrich yourself. Obviously, there are some despicable counter examples but it is a general rule.”

    You are obviously heading towards Adam Smith’s invisible hand, but this attitude is remarkable naive. Look at tobacco companies or oil companies or the industrial military complex. These are not “some counter example” these are some of the biggest companies and industries in the world. (Or big pharma, agro-farming etc.) Most businesses have positive externalities, but quite a few do not.

    Greed is good died in the 80’s, was brought back to life in the 90’s but I think has now been declared terminal.

    Good works that people do not for their own benefit should be applauded. If a religious person finds a reason to do good works in their holy book they should still be praised. If they do good works because they think they will get into heaven then not so much.

    Doing good for a reward (capitalism by Curtis or heaven for the religious) is much less praiseworthy, if at all.

  • AnonyMouse

    IMHO, most (or many) Christians don’t really do anything because God tells them to. They pretend they do – and some of them really think they do – but when you get into the nitty gritty, you’ll find out that, almost without fail, they do these things because it’s in their nature. And when the things that God has commanded run against their nature, they quickly find themselves struggling with the issue or abandoning it completely.

    For instance, I was talking with my mother earlier. She is staunchly “against” homosexuality because of the Bible, and at one point claimed that 80-90% of homosexuals chose to be that way, but if you actually talk to her about someone whom she knows (or knows of) and is gay, she doesn’t speak of them differently from any other person. She says it’s disgusting and abhorrent, but she talks about gay people like it’s a minor personality quirk, not a sin.

    Which reminds me of something odd that happened back when I was a Christian. I was standing in the checkout line at the local grocery store, and I noticed a particular magazine on the rack. It had on the cover a wedding photo of Ellen DeGeneres and her spouse.

    I’d expected to be disturbed, even revolted. After all, they were GAY, and that was just DISGUSTING. But when I stopped and looked at the picture, I didn’t feel that way at all. In fact, I felt… happy for them? How did that fit with God’s Word?

    So, yeah. Bible =|= morals. And when Christians figure out why they wouldn’t execute a homosexual, or exile two people because they saw each other naked, they’ll figure out where atheists get their morals.

  • Curtis


    Yes, I am channeling Adam Smith but you are the one who are being naïve. You look at a few counter examples and ignore the rest. Every store or business that you have patronized this week has given you pleasure. The vast majority of businesses are good for society.

    Financial self interest is good. Look at the entrepreneurs in you community. They are self-interested but you like them. Amazon, Anheuser-Busch, Apple all make tons of money by making us happy. Agro-farming means that food is cheap (perhaps you are too young to remmember the famine scares of the 70s.). Big pharma lets us live healthier and longer. If people did not have the opportunity to get rich, we would be much poorer. Look at any country that tried to abolish wealth.

    Clearly, there are dishonest or polluting companies. Those are greedy and bad but rare.

    As far as my actions. I prevented crime and cleaned up trash. I helped my neighbors directly and indirectly. You may not praise me but my town is better because of me. I did some of this before starting a business but much more when I had a bigger stake.

  • Julie

    I think a lot of it comes down to funding. Having worked for a few secular non-profits, we were constantly forced to partner up with religious organizations, because that is where the money goes. And I hated it, because I’d rather see the money go to groups who started on their own for the SOLE PURPOSE to “do good”, than go to a church which is basically corralling people to do good by using god and judgment as a threat (and obviously volunteerism is not their number one priority).

    Also in my experiences, non-religious service groups love to partner with other groups, value each others ideas, help a cause grow, etc. I don’t imagine that happens between religious sects.

    On a different note, if I skip a volunteer day, I feel bad because of letting actual people (or wildlife, or whatever it may be) down who probably could have benefited from my help – not because some imaginary god would have liked me to participate.

  • Curtis, my point wasn’t that business is bad (a degree in economics suggests I know that) simply that praising people for acting in their self interest isn’t good. If companies (or people) get praised for acting in their own self interest then they are more likely to act that way and that is when abuses happen. Look at the banks, they got bigger bonuses for taking greater risks and we all know what happened.

    To summarise, helping out of self interest should not be praised, the kid who goes to do charity work in Africa because his pretty classmate is too or the oil company providing gas for cars, but those who do it for purely humanitarian purposes should be exalted.

  • It’s all well and good, good people doing good because they’re good – but what I see both atheists and Christians in the comments here blindly missing is

    * those that do good even for bad people, and
    * bad people who do good when it’s against their nature.

    It has been said if you want to measure the degree of civilisation in a society you should enter its prisons – I think the same can be applied to altruism.

    It’s easy to say a good person doesn’t need religion to be altruistic, but what about a reformed person, one who previously led a life of crime, or solitude, who would not naturally be altruistic and good.

    Now I’m only speaking in defense of Christian beliefs here…

    These people, when they reform and become Christians will do good and will do it primarily because it is expected of them from having faith. Later they may start to enjoy the good feelings that come from helping others, but the trigger is faith.

    What about good people who do good for bad people. Those Christians who go out of their way to help others who have gotten themselves into trouble (even deservedly so), or those who simply react with hate and violence towards others? Again most people would seek to avoid this behaviour and these types of people, But a Christian may feel called by God to override their natural instincts to assist anyway.

    The whole point of the crucifixion (real or symbolic) was to demonstrate sacrifice not just those who are kind to you, but those who do evil and those you will get nothing back from.

    I’m not saying an atheist wouldn’t do this for some reason – but sometimes God is the only thing that is stopping some people from turning to drugs, crime, hatred and anger – and also helping them to help others.

  • Curtis


    I re-read your original post and I apologize for my response. I misread your post the first time.

    When I see the word “externalities”, I assume negative ones but you said “Most businesses have positive externalities.” I missed the word “positive” and jumped to a mistaken conclusion.

  • Rod

    That statement, “…doing good just for the sake of it” said a lot to me–says it all, in fact–kind of capturing the essence of what motivates me now that I’ve pretty thoroughly, in my 60’s, gone non-religious. Thanks for that statement, which I can use in the future when defending my reasons, as an atheist or secular humanist, whatever, for doing nice things. Why am I anti-religious, you ask? I’ve just come to see too much mythology, brain-washing, manipulation, coercion, and violence done in the name of someone’s god, that’s all–and so much of it done to children, that’s what really bugs me! I can’t buy religion any more.

error: Content is protected !!